Flashback to Luge’s 1964 Debut

Mike Hessel

Mike Hessel, shown here in a 1968 SI photo, debuted in luge at Innsbruck in 1964.

WHISTLER, British Columbia — I didn’t foresee having time for leisure reading here, so the only text I brought along was The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, a reference bible on the sports that most of us only check in on every four years. After Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in training at Whistler Sliding Center on Friday, raising controversy over the safety of his sport, I went to the book for a crash history lesson, and was amazed to read that when luge debuted as an Olympic sport at Innsbruck in 1964, a very similar tragedy occurred. From the book’s ‘64 summary:

Critics who had contended that luge was too dangerous a sport to be included in the Olympics gained sad support for their arguments when Polish-born British slider Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski was killed during a trial run on the Olympic course at Igls two weeks before the Games began. German sliders Josef Fleischmann and Josef Lenz [a doubles team] were also severely injured in a separate accident.

Fritz Nachmann

From the Jan. 27, 1964 issue of SI: pre-race favorite Fritz Nachmann of West Germany.

Scant details are available from ‘64 in the U.S. media: Luge was a sport dominated by German-speakers then, and they’ve won 34 of its 35 gold medals. Coles Phinizy’s sidebar on luge in SI’s Innsbruck preview (from Jan. 27, 1964, headlined “Peace of Mind on a fragment of Wood and Steel“) said that there were no tracks in the U.S., and that the Americans, who had trained in Poland, weren’t expected to medal. (They didn’t.) The slider pictured next to the story, 1963 world champ Fritz Nachmann of West Germany, would crash out on the first heat. In that preview, he had given this quote to Phinizy:

“It is a difficult sport to predict. It requires vigorous conditioning — weight lifting, gymnastics. But perhaps most important of all, you need peace of mind.”

I imagined it would be difficult to have peace of mind after one luger died in training and two others were seriously injured, but didn’t expect to be able to, on my way up to the Whistler Sliding Center on Saturday, hear a first-hand account from ‘64. Something serendipitous happened, though: I shared a gondola car up the mountain with two members of the orignal U.S. team — Mike Hessel (pictured atop this post), who finished 22nd out of 38 sliders as a 21-year-old in ‘64; and Ray Fales, who finished 13th out of 16 teams in doubles (along with teammate Nicholas Mastromatteo) as a 29-year-old.

It was raining out — it’s always raining here — but I shot the following video with them on the walk up to the Sliding Center, where they’d come to check out the luge, 46 years after getting it all started in the Olympics. Hessel (who’s now a melon farmer in Oregon) and Fales talked about how they were converted from European ski bums to lugers in the early ’60s, and how, following Kay-Skrzypeski’s death in Innsbruck, the arguments about crash-proofing the course were similar to this week’s debates:

Remembering Luge\'s \'64 Debut

Remembering Luge\'s \'64 Debut

This movie requires Adobe Flash for playback.

Hessel said Kay-Skrzypeski was a former RAF pilot in his ’50s who was just trying the luge, and “probably shouldn’t have been there.” Apparently luge officials in ‘64 made the same dubious claim they did after Kumaritashvili’s death in 2010 — that the track was fine — but they were talked into reinforcing the track with plywood walls, which kept a number of subsequent sliders from suffering a similar fate. Fales recalled that the coaches of Innsbruck’s weaker teams, who were most at risk, went to the Innsbruck organizers and said, “You’ve got to put a lip on top of the big curves, to keep people in, so if they make a msitake they don’t have to die.” It took support from the more powerful Swiss team to make it happen, but by 9 a.m. the next morning, the lip was nailed up.

When he heard about Kumaritashvili’s death while en route to Whistler this weekend, Fales was shocked. “I thought 1964 was the last dangerous year,” he said. “I thought that ever since then, people made their courses a lot safer.”

  • Published On Feb. 14, 2010 by lukewinn

    1. KenC

      Thanks for that excellent video interview. It doesn’t seem that long ago, really. I remember watching my first Olympics in 68, when I was 6, and have watched them ever since. Apparently, we never learn the lessons from the past, do we?

    2. 2/21/10

      Thanks for this article and video! Very well written. I have been looking all over the place for a description of the first Olympics Luge from ‘64.

    3. ChrisF

      Great article. That Fales guy you interviewed was great. He just happens to be my father :-)

    4. Rach10

      Fabulous article, it’s really interesting to read about the Luge ’s debut in 1964. I especially like the interview with Hessel and Fales.

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